1947: The partition and riots

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1947: Partition and riots


A storm that blew over

By Kuldip Nayar Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, wanted India and Pakistan to be like the US and Canada, with facilities to travel without any fuss. Since the writer of the letter mentioned Jinnah, I thought he should know the Quaid-i-Azam’s vision.

What exacerbated the situation were two complications: one, the announcement by Britain that it would withdraw on Aug 15, 1947 instead of June 6, 1948 as declared earlier; two, the failure of the Boundary Force which was constituted to curb the rioting. Many years later, when I was writing my book Distant Neighbours I asked Lord Mountbatten at his residence in Broadlands, near London, why did he change the date, a move that resulted in the massacre of two million people.

He did not contradict me. He argued that he had to advance the date because he could not hold the country together. “Things were slipping from my hands,” Mountbatten explained. “The Sikhs were up in arms in Punjab. The Great Calcutta Killing had taken place and communal tension prevailed all over. On top of it, there had been the announcement that the British were leaving. Therefore, I myself decided to quit sooner.”

The Boundary Force, formed on Aug 1, did little to stop ruthless and well-armed persons from killing innocent men, women and children. It merely recorded what it saw. It said in a report: “Throughout the killing was pre-medieval in its ferocity. Neither age nor sex was spared: mothers with babies in their arms were cut down, speared or shot … Both sides were equally merciless.”

In terms of men, the Boundary Force had a strength of 55,000, including Brig Mohammad Ayub Khan who later became Pakistan’s president. The force had a high proportion of British officers. In fact this proved to be its undoing because they were interested in repatriation to Britain, not in an operation which might tie them down to the subcontinent for some more time. The British commander of the force, General Rees, had instructions to protect only “European lives”.

Looking back, one cannot but blame Mountbatten for doing so little to ensure the protection of minorities on both sides despite his assurances. When rivers of blood flowed in Punjab and other parts of the subcontinent, when destruction engulfed habitations, and when Jinnah begged Mountbatten (June 23) to “shoot Muslims” if necessary and Nehru suggested handing over the cities to the military, Mountbatten’s response was feeble. He appeared more interested in becoming the common Governor General of India and Pakistan — an office which Jinnah did not let him have — than in curbing the lawlessness. He should have been tried.

The writer is a leading journalist based in Delhi.

1947 riots


The 1947 partition holocaust: an examination in retrospect

By Abdul Sattar Pingar

Although sixty years have passed, yet it is not too late to determine who brought about or caused the holocaust in August 1947 as a result of the partition of India. It is tragic to note that so far there has been no demand either in Pakistan or in India for fixing responsibility for the holocaust, nor has any national monument been erected in honour of the millions who died or were uprooted.

The key leaders at the time such as Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten, the last viceroy, never accepted the responsibility for this colossal man-made tragedy. However, Nehru, in an interview with the New York Times in October 1949, said “if we had known the terrible consequences of partition in the shape of killings etc. we might have resisted this division of India.”

The holocaust which we witnessed during August and September 1947 was unprecedented and fully exposed the bestiality and brutality inherent in man. There were appalling atrocities -- massacres, arson, looting and rape.

All the great leaders of that era died long ago, and there is no doubt they made immense sacrifices for the liberation of India from the British yoke. Mountbatten played a key role in speeding up the process of partition.

These leaders in their struggle and zeal for freedom failed to realise that the communal riots, which had already begun, were the harbinger of the great tragedy to come. Churchill predicted in his speech in the House of Commons as far back at 1931 “if we were to wash our hands of all responsibility, ferocious civil war would speedily break out between Muslims and Hindus”. In August 1945, Glancy, then Governor of the Punjab, wrote to Gen Wavell (later Viceroy) “if Pakistan becomes an imminent reality, we shall be heading straight for bloodshed on a wider scale”.

Tara Singh in his recorded interview on May 19, 1947, said that Mountbatten told him “in Pakistan, the Muslims would massacre all the Sikhs and Hindus and that in other part of the Punjab, the Sikhs and Hindus would massacre all the Muslims”. In his personal note dated June 26, 1947, Mountbatten observed: “Every responsible person is particularly worried about the situation in Lahore and Amritsar, for if we cannot stop this arson, both cities would be burnt to the ground.” These observations like other warnings fell upon deaf ears.

Quite often in history great leaders in their determination to achieve great objectives are known to have cared little about the sufferings their action might cause to the millions. For example, attempts to conquer Russia by Napoleon in 1812 and by Hitler in 1941 cost them utter destruction of their armies in millions. Similarly, Joseph Stalin in his zeal and ambition to enforce collectivisation in the year 1929 created a situation that led to death of millions of peasants.

Pol Pot of Cambodia, driven by fierce nationalism and his concept of communism, tried overnight to create a moneyless collective economy by forcible evacuation of Cambodia’s city population to the countryside. It led to death of the millions of people. Numerous such examples can be cited where leaders were utterly unmindful of the sufferings of their populations as they went ahead to achieve their idealistic goals.

The 1947 holocaust was no different. The leaders of the two communities and key British officials are therefore jointly responsible for bringing about or causing appalling atrocities to Muslims, Hindus in 1947, particularly in Punjab and Bengal, as a result of transfer of populations, in spite of the warnings which were made from time to time.

All of them ignored such warnings. Furthermore, they failed to prepare contingency plans in the event of a sudden breakdown of law and order during the transfer of power. The attitude of each of the leaders, though now dead, towards what happened and was about to happen should be examined by a joint Indo-Pakistan tribunal composed of eminent men of integrity and good reputation. The tribunal should be called the truth commission (on South Africa pattern) to ascertain the truth as to how the holocaust became possible and whether it was avoidable or could have been prevented if sufficient time and energy were devoted to the preparation of a contingency plan to avert the catastrophe.

The findings of such a commission will promote goodwill and understanding between the peoples of the two countries and help in reducing mutual distrust, suspicion, hatred and bitterness. This can ultimately reduce the mad armed race between the two countries.

The population of Punjab at the time of partition was 14.5 million, with 55 per cent Muslims, 25 per cent Hindus and 20 per cent Sikhs. The migration in Punjab involved 2.5 million non-Muslims from west to east and three millions Muslims from east to west. The population of undivided Bengal comprised 26 million, out of which nine million were Hindus in Muslim Bengal and six million Muslims in Hindu Bengal. There the transfer of populations was comparatively less painful.

Neither Gandhi nor Nehru was prepared to examine the horrendous implications of the transfer of population, such as fear of being uprooted from places and environs in which families had lived for generations and shifting to a new climate and culturally alien surroundings and so on. Jinnah had publicly talked about it from time to time and the Muslim League suggested several times to the Congress a discussion of the issue. However, the transfer of population was part of Jinnah’s concept of a homeland for the hundred million Muslims in India.

There are examples in history when proper care was taken. In 1920 an exchange of over one million people between Turkey and Greece took place with the help of the League of Nations over a period of one year costing each government ten million sterling pounds. If this example had been considered and applied, perhaps the holocaust could have been avoided in Punjab. But unfortunately all the aforesaid leaders maintained a conspiracy of silence in failing to examine the full implications of the transfer and exchange of population.

Similarly, no steps were taken to nip in the bud the large scale preparation of slaughter by Sikhs who collected bombs, mortars, rifles, Tommy guns, machine gun etc. Throughout this period, the killing was pre-medieval in its ferocity. Neither old men nor women were spared, mothers with their babies in their arms were cut down, speared or shot. Both sides (Sikhs and Muslims) were equally merciless.

Such an orgy of communal killings was controllable if Mountbatten had requested the British government to send part of its troops stationed in Italy, Germany, Greece and Middle East to India. This was necessary as it was not expected that Indian soldiers (Muslims and Hindu) would remain immune from communal bias when so closely associated with it on the spot, particularly in Punjab.

The transfer of power was speeded up by Mountbatten irrespective of the consequences involved. The enormous challenge of handling the communal war and ensuring a peaceful transfer of power never figured in his calculation. The original plan for the transfer of power was envisaged to take place in June 1948, but then it was advanced to August 1947. It would be relevant to mention here that it took two years to separate Orissa from Bihar as a province and a similar period to separate Sindh from the Bombay presidency. Burma’s separation from India had taken three years. According to Mountbatten, all the aforesaid leaders wanted the transfer of power at the greatest possible speed.

This means the leaders had not given serious thought to the consequences of speeding up the transfer of power, and it is unbelievable that they expected the partition to be effected in a friendly atmosphere. Patrick Spens, who was the Chief Justice of the Federal Court of India, in his statement recorded on May 22, 1963, said “The main cause was the haste with which we parted with India. The connections of centuries were severed within days without any proper thought. There was a terrible haste. The main factor was that the Labour Government in London wanted to get rid of India as quickly as possible”.

There is voluminous evidence available in the form of documents and books, the latest being “The Holocaust of Indian Partition” by Madhav Godbole, “Freedom at Midnight” by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, “India wins Freedom” by Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, “Legend and Reality” by H.M. Seervai, and “Sole Spokesman” by Ayesha Jalal. This article is based on the material collected from these books and the analysis and conclusions are based on the lessons of history.

The findings of the commission should establish the truth about the leaders responsible for bringing about the 1947 holocaust. However, the commission could exonerate and forgive the leaders on account of error of judgment in their failure to assess and foresee the catastrophe, particularly in Punjab and Bengal.

The commission should also assess the role and contribution of each of the leaders in the freedom struggle. There is no doubt that India’s freedom was possible because of the high quality of statesmanship of these leaders. The role of each leader, on this count, is praiseworthy. For example, Gandhi prevented outbreak of a communal war in Bengal on a scale as witnessed in Punjab because of his presence there which cooled the passions aroused. In fact, Gandhi’s presence in Calcutta constituted one man Boundary force, as observed by Mountbatten.

Nehru spent almost nine years in jail for the cause of freedom and laid the foundation of democracy in India. Unfortunately, Jinnah did not survive long enough because of his ill-health to lay the foundation of democracy in Pakistan. But his great role in carving out the world’s biggest Muslim state has been aptly described by Stanley Wolpert in these words: “Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly any one can be credited with creating a nation. Muhammad Ali Jinnah did all three”.

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